Case is dumped by state attorneys

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 6, 2004

A federal judge on Tuesday threw out the most important evidence against former Gov. Don Siegelman, forcing state prosecutors to throw out the rest of the case. A Demopolis attorney said the judge had no other option.

Siegelman, facing charges of conspiracy and healthcare fraud, was indicted by a Grand Jury in May. On Monday, his trial began with jury selection, and on Tuesday, his trial ended with prosecutors all but giving up.

U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemons – who U.S. Attorneys tried to remove from the case – said there was no evidence to support charges that Siegelman, top aide Paul Hamrick, and Tuscaloosa physician Phillip Bobo conspired to defraud the state of more than $500,000.

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“If there’s anybody who knows what goes on in Montgomery and in the Legislature, it was Judge Clemon,” said Billy Coplin, a Demopolis attorney and head of the Marengo County Democratic Party. “Clemon, at one time, was a state senator, and it would have been hard to prove there was a conspiracy with him presiding.”

After Clemon threw out those charges, state prosecutors said there was no point in continuing the trial against Siegelman.

Alabama Attorney General Troy King said Tuesday marked a “day without justice” after Clemon’s ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a denial of justice,” he said in a prepared statement. “If a case can be thought of as a jigsaw puzzle and the evidence as its pieces, what has occurred in Tuscaloosa is that the judge systematically removed the most important pieces of the puzzle until the completion of the puzzle was made impossible.”

Coplin said King, and other Republicans interested in the prosecution of this case, could only blame fellow Republicans.

“Bobo was tried on pretty much the same thing, and he was convicted,” Coplin said. “Bobo’s attorneys appealed to the 11th Circuit – which has Republican judges – and they threw out the conviction against him. They said there was no crime.”

Siegelman, Hamrick and Bobo were all accused of using state money to rig a healthcare deal that, eventually, would have profited Bobo.

Under the direction of Siegelman and Hamrick, prosecutors contended, the state gave money to Bobo that allowed him to pay off a competing bidder for healthcare in rural Alabama. By paying off the competitor, Bobo would have received the work – and payment for the work.

“The losers today are the people of Alabama who have the right to have their public officials serve them honorably, to have them held accountable when they do not, or to at least have a full and fair hearing when allegations… are presented,” King said of Clemon’s ruling. “These proceedings began on a dark day and they sadly conclude on an even darker day, a day without justice.”

Many have speculated that the case against Siegelman was really just a political vendetta. Coplin said part of that may be true.

“It was probably the combination of a lot of things,” he said. “Yes, I do think that was part of it.”

Coplin also said the scandals surrounding Siegelman have surprised him.

“It’s completely out of character for him,” Coplin said. “This man has spent his entire life in public service, and there’s never been a whiff of a problem until this. He was attorney general, secretary of state, lieutenant governor and then governor. There’s never been a problem around him before.”

While the charges against Siegelman may have included party politics, Coplin doesn’t believe Tuesday’s vindication by a court will help the former governor, politically.

“You’ve got Lucy Baxley, who’s probably going to run for governor,” he said. “She’s a straight lady and she’ll be tough to beat.”

Coplin stopped short of saying Siegelman’s political career was over.

“I imagine he’ll always be around, in some capacity,” Coplin said. “That’s all he’s ever known.”

When asked by state media outlets about his political future, Siegelman said he wasn’t thinking about that right now. However, one of his attorneys did release a statement Tuesday night indicating satisfaction in Clemon’s ruling.

“The attorney general’s and U.S. attorney’s unfair comments about the judge in this case make out a very poor excuse for an indictment that never should have been brought,” said Siegelman attorney Joe Espy The attorney general and the U.S. attorney, who speak with the combined experience of zero trials between them, throw around insults without ever having appeared in Judge Clemon’s courtroom in this matter. Any reasonable judge in this state would have made the same legal rulings as were made in this case.

That doesn’t mean Siegelman has evaded all legal rulings surrounding his administration.

Though one set of conspiracy and fraud charges was thrown out Tuesday, another grand jury in Montgomery is investigating circumstances around a tax break provided to Emelle-based Waste Management. In those charges, Siegelman also is being investigated for tax breaks given to HealthSouth, which allowed them to build a hospital in Birmingham.